The Tabulit Startup Serial 0: The Story So Far

I basically edit stories everyday now

I want to be a novelist. To be more specific, I want to be a storyteller. So my time during my master’s degree in creative writing was pretty exciting. We had editors, publishers, and agents come to the school to talk about how it all works. It looked glamorous. The whole thing just smelled of everything we ever wanted life to be, sprinkled with some real lessons of ‘work hard for it’, ‘keep going’, etc.

The problem was that as I got to see and hear more of it, it just all seemed very outdated. I did buy a Kindle, but those eBooks were still bulky in terms of time investments, and I would forget my Kindle so many times at home. At the time I was reading web comics and web novels on Naver and Lezhin, both Korean mobile applications, and was thinking, ‘I wish there was something like this in English’. I could just pop that application up anywhere as I wanted to, whether I was waiting in line for food or was standing in a stopped train. I would often forget to bring a book with me, but I never forgot my phone. Then there was the idea: storytelling on the go, anywhere and anytime. Bite-sized to fit in the nooks and crannies of our daily lives, while not breaking the bank for it.

Turns out, this isn’t that original. That saying, that if you’re thinking of an idea then someone else definitely is also thinking of that idea, is 100% true. There were a few applications that were already doing this, like Scribd and the late Oyster Books, just to mention a few.

The thing was that no one was doing it like how I wanted it to be: a place for reading fun quirky stories while also being a place for hanging out on the mobile, talking to others. None of them had the stories that at least I would be particularly interested in either. They’d either be so spread out or so concentrated on one genre, so much that these other mobile reading apps just became another thing that occupies my iPhone screen, waiting to be deleted. I really wanted the experience of those Korean applications. The interactive aspects of people commenting on chapters and the authors themselves commenting back, the thrill of waiting for the next thing to come, the diversity of the stories, and the fact that there was something for everyone there.

So when James asked me if I wanted to start a serial story application with him, I immediately shook his hand in agreement.

Now, the thing about being a Korean is that whenever we do anything big, we have to tell it to our parents. They’ve got to at least know.

I sat down from across them in the living room, and told them the news. Then I immediately regretted that decision.

“Are you sure you’ve thought it all through?”

“What about your law school application?”

“Remember how we told you to go to medical school last time? Look where you got to by ignoring that advice.”

“Why can’t you just go to med school or law school like we tell you to?”

“Do you even know what a business is?”

“Nobody reads anymore. How are you going to make money out of that?”

“What if this all fails? What then?”

“Don’t you have a better idea?”

“Why are you trying to throw your 20s away?”

“Why are you making us worry so much?”

So yeah. That meeting went pretty well.

Surprisingly, they still supported my decision. My father, the man who had been singing ‘med school’ to me all my life, was quite positive about it.

“At least you’re doing it when you can afford to fail.”

That was in fact the best statement of approval that I had heard from dad in years. Believe me, it’s extremely rare for an immigrant Korean first-born son to get a compliment like that, when all he seems to be doing is everything but the right path. That is how I knew that I had moved something in my dad by making that fearless announcement.

James did the same, and I believe his parents were also worried as well. He was throwing away a bright career in finance to go into, all of a sudden, a startup. No matter how many times we encounter stories of someone quitting their career to successfully build a startup, the fact that this is perceived almost as a default path to throwing your life away doesn’t change (and it just might actually be).

We spent six months on this thing. We built a prototype. We invited writers in. We tested it for two months. We pitched to investors. We talked to as many people as possible to get a firm grip on this thing.

Now here we are, a plateau before the next steep climb, the September relaunch.

There were so many downs. Our current CTO, Minjoo (MJ), is our third one. Each time our first and second CTOs left, we thought the world was ending. Our designer also told us recently that she has to leave. Our beta was largely a failure in practice. Nothing worked the way we wanted it to work. People we approach, whether they are writers or publishers or comic artists, save for the 1 or 2 persons that say they’ll think about it, most turn us down. James and I are still struggling to keep ourselves going financially. Let’s just say there has been a lot of soul-crushing freelance work in the past several months.

There were some ups. We managed to get into Wavefront’s Venture Accelerator Program, run by the BC government. We received some positive feedback from Anges Quebec, an angel investor network in Quebec. Most of all, we managed to gather a small but potent group of writers, artists and publishers around us. As long as we have even a small group of people who think that the world of stories we are creating is one worthy of existence, we’re going to keep going.

This is a serial story about a serial story company. If you’re coming here to specifically look for lessons, this isn’t the story for you. Perhaps you may find some lessons as we go along, but this is going to be a very personal story.

Half of it is really for us. Writing this all down has been an exercise in making sense of what happened, and what is happening, as well as what is going to happen. It enables us to organize our progress, see the long way we’ve come. And if we fail, at least at the end of the day we have a hell of a story.

Another half of it though, is really for everyone else. For the writers and artists that we’ve met and talked to. For the publishers we emailed, skyped, and shook hands with. For our friends who have given us words of support. For our families who worry endlessly but keep us moving forward with their love and trust. This is for them.

Oh and if anyone’s thinking about startups, we’ll give you the short version. It’s like dying everyday. Hopefully that gets you thinking more carefully about getting a startup going.

So here it goes. This is the Tabulit Startup Serial.